Sunday, 3 February 2019

Last clown, laugh… He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Barbican with Taz Modi and Fraser Bowles

To see this film projected from a 35mm print is a special treat and all praise to the Barbican team for sourcing this copy from a private collection in France. He Who Gets Slapped has not been digitally restored, which is a crime given its qualities, and probably has not been screened like this for many a year in the UK.

The event was sold out and I was second in the queue behind a woman who wondered why they were screening it without the "original score"… I put her right on the whole silent film thing but also on the importance of live music to the experience (she was no doubt pleased we didn’t end up sat together). Today we had a mesmeric and wistful score from Taz Modi who plays a kind of hybrid-jazz, accompanied by expressive cello from Fraser Bowles. Taz’s piano figures are influenced by electronica and in the manner of Nils Frahm, Hauschka and even Dawn of Midi, he weaves patterns over the narrative rather than matching specific events; a tonal rather than a harmonised duet and which, in the context of such a powerfully visual and humane film, worked very well.

I’d previously seen Taz accompanying the Polish silent The Call of the Sea (1927) at the same venue and his style is naturally cinematic and very supportive, with humble lines sublimated to the source material. Bowles’ cello contributed to what emotional specificity there was and the two produced a pleasingly-organic sound that contributed enormously to the connections being made between the audience and emotion on screen.

It’s hard to think of a Hollywood silent film as hard-hitting as He Who Gets Slapped nor a performance as raw and convincing as that of Lon Chaney. Based on a Russian play and directed by Swedish silent master Victor Sjöström, it is a tale of unflinching honesty which doesn’t shy away from the need to show full consequence. Chaney’s range of facial expression is, as I’ve previously noted, “supernatural” and the various extremes of clown make-up enable him to reach new heights of happiness and deeper troughs of despair.

But, it’s the Chaney face without makeup that is the most impactful as dedicated scientist Paul Beaumont is doubly betrayed by his benefactor Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott) and his wife, Maria (Ruth King). Just as his research into the origins of man bear fruit the Baron takes all the credit at the science Academy, before his wife reveals she is leaving him for the “better” man… it’s an agonising moment and one that Chaney handles with measured alacrity: he could so easily go over the top but he nails the moment so convincingly, his mind snapping as laughter becomes the only response to unbearable humiliation.

After every “act”, Sjöström inserts the image of a clown laughing hysterically at a spinning world. At the start the clown morphs into Paul spinning the globe in his office and after his bitter failure, the spinning globe is joined by clowns who sit around its circumference and watch as it turns into a circus ring. So many images in the film are used to match with others and move the focused visual narrative along in a very economical way.

Lifes a walking shadow, nah-nah-na-na-nah
The action shifts to Paris six years later where Paul, now a sensational clown called HE – who gets slapped, has taken the city by storm. In a World in which nothing is funnier than a man getting hit in the face, repeatedly HE’s act is elaborate, featuring massed ranks of clowns of all sizes, ushered into the arena by an enthusiastic orchestra, syncopating wildly. HE is at the back of the parade on stilts alongside the senior clown Tricaud played by Mack Sennett veteran Ford Sterling who is very effective here acting and not fooling.

HE enters to grand applause and a wave of hilarity and proceeds with a painful pantomime based entirely on the humiliation of his previous existence, the clowns carry large books in mockery of the years he spent in fruitless study and as Paul/HE looks to the audience he sees the faces of the Academy’s mocking scientists laughing down at him.

In mockery of his failed scientific career he is slapped for every statement and the entire troop takes turns in beating him to the ground. Eventually he is beaten down to the ground and his heart, held against his chest by a cloth pocket, is ripped out by Tricaud, and he is trampled into the sand…

Silent Shearer and pre-Greta Gilbert chain daisies
Elsewhere in the circus is the handsome horse-rider Bezano (John Gilbert wearing fairly indecent tights…) who notices the arrival of a pretty girl, Consuelo, (shiny new, silent Norma Shearer so different from her sophisticated pre-code persona) who is to join his act. Consuelo’s career is being masterminded by her father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall, having a ball…) a hard-up nobleman who aims to use her exposure to marry her off to the highest bidder.

The two young equestrians bond immediately whilst HE is also smitten with the young woman; a reminder of the love he has lost. Inevitably, all balance is soon lost as the Baron comes to watch the show. He doesn’t recognise the man whose life he stole but Paul certainly spots him just as the old cheat eye up Conseula. Sjöström cleverly mingles scenes of Conseula and Bezano falling in love on a bucolic picnic with the negotiations between the Count and the Baron... clearly the World is troubled and love, faith, honesty and greed all must be reconciled.

This is Chaney’s greatest clown, one who mixes extreme pathos with a laugh that is so engulfing you truly believe the switch from bliss to bedlam that has brought it forth. HE is contorted by the misfortunes of existence into someone who can only take solace in further violence from an unfair world but, in the end, he has to find a way to rise above treachery and defeat... this is no easy melodrama; we're all getting slapped, every day.

The globes spin, the crowds laugh and the clowns all fall down in the end, cast off into eternity…

Lon, Norma, Victor and John Gilbert's tights...

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